Venice holds again the water for first time in 1,200 years

Venice, Italy (CNN) – Sebastian Fagarazzi is used to moving his things. As a Venetian who lives on the first floor, every time the city of Acqua Alta – the regular inundation by high tide – he is exposed to, he has to lift everything off the ground, including furniture and appliances, or risk losing it.

But on October 3, when the flood sirens went off, when the flood sirens went off, when a flood forecast of 135 centimeters (53 inches) would normally see about half of the city under different water levels, he did nothing. “I had confidence,” he says.

Saturday was the first Acqua Alta of the season for Venice. It was also the day that after decades of delays, controversy, and corruption, the city finally tried its long-awaited flood barriers against the tide.

An earlier trial in July overseen by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte had gone well – but that was in good weather and low tide. Previous attempts had failed to raise all 78 gates in the barriers installed in the Venice lagoon.

Despite all the odds, it worked.

At 12:05 p.m. St. Mark’s Square, which starts to flood at just 90 centimeters and should be knee-deep, was quite dry at high tide, and only large puddles oozed around the sewer system.

The square’s cafes and shops, which often have to close for hours, remained open.

And in the northern district of Cannaregio, Sebastian Fagarazzi’s house stayed dry.

“I heard that [warning] Sirens in the morning but I didn’t lift any of my furniture this time because the barrier was lifted on the last test and I believed it would work, “says Fagarazzi, co-founder of the Venezia Autentica social initiative is historic.”

The defense system is called MOSE, the Italian for Moses, a name derived from the more functional Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico, meaning experimental electromechanical module. It consists of 78 flood barriers installed in the seabed at the three main entry points of the lagoon.

When the tide hits, they can rise to form a dam that prevents the Adriatic from entering the lagoon and flooding the city.

Delays and corruption

The new flood barrier at the Malamocco inlet in front of Venice Lido.

ANDREA PATTARO / AFP via Getty Images

Venice’s Acque Alte (“flood”) is usually seen between October and March and lasts a few hours. This mainly affects the two lowest (and most visited) areas of the city: San Marco and the Rialto area. The phenomenon is usually caused by a combination of exceptionally high tides, low air pressure and the presence of a southern sirocco wind.

In recent years, their frequency and severity have increased due to climate change. On November 12, 2019, the city was devastated by an Acqua Alta that reached 187 centimeters and flooded almost 90% of the city. Businesses have since struggled to recover, and tourist numbers have plummeted on top of the cost of damage. The destruction followed by the pandemic has brought locals to their knees.

The MOSE project has been in the works since 1984, but has been so affected by delays and corruption that many Venetians never believed it would work.

“It doesn’t seem to be true,” says Serena Nalon at the Bottega del Mondo store in Cannaregio. Your company – a fair trade cooperative – was badly damaged in the floods last year.

“I was very skeptical – not least because they had spent so much money, so far with no result. That’s why I had minimal expectations this morning,” she says.

“I was concerned when I saw the tide forecast, then somewhere between disbelief and happy when it worked. You value things more when you don’t expect it.”

Federica Michielan, owner of the bar Ae Bricoe, felt the same way nearby. “It’s great – it’s finally resolved,” she says. “At least I hope it is, because if it breaks we will be underwater.”

“Historic Day”

Tourists await the tide in central Venice.

Tourists await the tide in central Venice.

MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP via Getty Images

A test in bad weather conditions was the next step for MOSE, which has not yet been completed. And on Friday, when a full moon and strong winds were forecast for the next morning, the city council asked for permission to raise the barriers.

The usual high-water sirens sounded around the city around 8 a.m. on Saturday, while the test began half an hour later. By 10:10 a.m. the barriers were completely raised – and while the water level outside the MOSE within the lagoon rose to 132 centimeters, it remained at 70 centimeters – enough to keep San Marco dry.

“This was a historic day for Venice,” said Mayor Luigi Brugnaro, who had observed the raising of the barriers with MOSE Special Commissioner Elisabetta Spitz, later told journalists.

“It’s a great satisfaction to have watched helplessly for decades as the water reached all over the city and caused enormous damage.

“We not only showed with a flood that would have flooded the city, but also with a sirocco wind of 19 knots that it works.”

While St. Mark's Square stayed dry on October 3rd, it flooded the next day.

While St. Mark’s Square stayed dry on October 3rd, it flooded the next day.

MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP via Getty Images

In the city, the Venetians – many of whom had barricaded their property against the incoming water – could hardly believe their luck. At El Fornareto bakery in Cannaregio, locals grinned as they queued for bread in sneakers instead of the rubber boots they usually wore. In the church of San Nicolò dei Mendicoli in the southern district of Dorsoduro, which normally floods 130 centimeters, the priest Don Paolo Bellio even referred to the success in his evening sermon.

“Today we were saved,” he said afterwards. “We didn’t have to use the pumps. It was a surprise, but I’m glad it worked – especially since it was so criticized. This is a day of joy for everyone.”

Commissioner Spitz called it a “clear success” and stressed on Saturday that it was “only a fundamental step to protect the city and the lagoon”. The project, which also raises walkways in the lowest areas of the city to 110 centimeters and permanent defensive walls near the flood barriers, is scheduled to be completed in December 2021 and handed over to the city.

Until then, it was agreed that from now on the barrier would be raised every time the tide reaches 130 centimeters, which means that devastating floods like last year (at least in the medium term) should be a thing of the past. Climate change means that MOSE does not hold back the water indefinitely). As soon as the city takes power, the 110 centimeter barriers will rise sooner.

‘Sour taste’

People walk on raised walkways in front of St. Mark's Basilica in St. Mark's Square in Venice while the flood barriers are tested.

People walk on raised walkways in front of St. Mark’s Basilica in St. Mark’s Square in Venice while the flood barriers are tested.

MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP via Getty Images

What it does mean, however, is that the Acqua Alta will continue in St. Mark’s Square – which is flooded to 90 centimeters. And indeed, on Sunday, just 24 hours after the triumph of MOSE, the city’s famous piazza was calf-deep in the water with a sea level of 106 centimeters.

While tourists took selfies and danced in the water, an air of resignation hung over the shops and cafes that had to close again.

In Quadri, one of the most famous cafés in the square, where everyone from Proust to Brangelina sat under the mirrored walls, manager Roberto Pepe started the cleanup.

Even though the tide was at 12:25 p.m., he had kept the cafe closed all morning to pile velvet chairs on raised tables and block entrances. Not that it helped; Even an hour after high tide, the strange napkin and trivet were still floating on the green mosaic floors.

“As a Venetian, I’m happy about yesterday, but as someone who works in St. Mark’s Square, it doesn’t change anything and leaves a sour taste,” he says.

“We have the solution. Yesterday the piazza was dry. This is the day after the test and see it. We just want to work – this is the heart of the city, there is so much work for so many people.”

The barrier has been in the works since 1984 but has been fraught with delays and corruption.

The barrier has been in the works since 1984 but has been fraught with delays and corruption.

ANDREA PATTARO / AFP via Getty Images

“We always turned to Acqua Alta with resignation, but now it’s a disappointment because we know there is a solution. We’ve waited 30 years – now let’s make it work.”

Mayor Brugnaro told CNN that MOSE’s success was a “comeback” not only for Venice but also for Italy after the country suffered badly during the pandemic. “To convey the feeling of a simpler, more normal city, even with a bit of Acqua Alta – because a few inches is nothing compared to devastation – I think it could show the world that we have technology here, and it could be a different one Economy to balance tourism. “

Fagarazzi is only relieved for the time being. “Last year was traumatic – you could hear the sirens and it was unstoppable. I think we still haven’t understood how amazing the news is. This is a new day for Venice because it’s the first time in 1,200 years [since the seat of power moved to St Mark’s Square] that a flood did not result in the city being flooded.

“For Venetians, this is Armstrong’s first step on the moon.”

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